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The Last Catholic Bishop in Iceland

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

On this day, 07 Nov 1550, the last Catholic Bishop in Iceland and an important figure in Icelandic history was beheaded because of his opposition to Lutheranism and the control from Denmark’s King Christian III.

Jón was born in 1484 at a farm south of Akureyri called Gryta. He was educated at nearby Munkaþverá (monastery). At this location was the Benedictine Abbey of Iceland. There is this statue at this location.

Jón was ordained a Catholic priest in about 1504 and was sent on two missions to Norway. In 1522, he became the episcopal see of Hólar. Bishop Jón struggled against Denmark and the Reformation until he and his two sons were killed on this day. He is an ancestor to many Icelanders alive today and my 11th Great Grandfather.

Our ancestor, Jón, was known for many exceptional talents including the composition of poetry. He had at least six children with Helga Sigurðardóttir. The Catholic Church was dissatisfied with Jón’s faith because he ignored the rule to be celibate. However, many Icelandic priests and bishops through the years ignored this church law and because Iceland was so far away from Rome, not much was done to prevent this practice.

Lutheran Reformation began slowly in Iceland. Icelanders studying in Denmark and Germany brought these new ideas home with them. Martin Luther had posted his Ninety-Five Theses on 31 Oct 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany. During the 1520s, there was a German merchant community at Hafnarfjörður where the first Lutheran Church was built but the Alþingi passed a resolution pledging allegiance to the King of Norway and vowing to keep their Holy Faith (Catholic). The country’s two bishops, Ögmundur Pálsson of Skálholt and Jón Arason of Hólar signed that decree.

King Christian III of Denmark began imposing Lutheranism on all the held lands and ordered Icelanders to change their religion, too. In 1538, both bishops Ögmundur and Jón rebelled against the decree.

By 1541, they had agreed to pay taxes to Denmark as long as they were allowed to keep the Icelandic laws and customs. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards, Bishop Ögmundur, who was old and blind, was taken prisoner to Denmark, where he died in 1542.

Bishop Jón’s unrelenting opposition is thought to have come from Icelandic nationalism, Catholic faith, and also his personal desire to retain control. He resented changing religions and believed that Iceland should remain Catholic. Pope Paul III sent a letter of support that urged Jón to continue to be a champion for the Catholic religion in Iceland.

In February 1549 the Danish King sent a letter to the Icelandic people saying that Bishop Jón was to be considered an outlaw and he was not obeying the King’s orders so they should not help him or obey him. Skálholt was reformed in 1549 but many lives were lost in the civil war that ensued.

In the summer of 1549, Jón, his two sons, Björn and Ari, and a large group of men captured Marteinn Einarsson beneath Snæfellsjökull. He was the Lutheran Bishop appointed by the King of Denmark. Legend tells us that Ari did not want to take forceful action but his mother presented a woman’s skirt to Ari, which was a traditional custom of shaming a man.

The next summer in 1550, Jón with 200 men and his two sons each with 100 men rode to the Alþingi to fight against Lutheranism. In October 1550, Jón made another action against his last big enemy in Iceland, Daði Guðmundsson, but he took less than 100 men including his two sons. Historians say he had few men because he was confident of success. Daði’s estate was at Sauðafell and Ari had already claimed this land. During the Battle of Sauðafell, Jón and his group were captured in the church.

Jón, Björn, and Ari were taken to Snóksdalur. On 23 Oct 1550, Christian Skriver, the Danish representative, took over their safe keeping until the next summer Alþingi. Daði, Bishop Marteinn and Christian Skriver took the prisoners to Skálholt and wondered what they should do with them until the summer. They were afraid that the northern fishermen, followers of Jón, would cause a problem. A clergyman named Jón Bjarnason was reported to say, ‘The axe and the earth will keep them best.’ Without a trial, they were sentenced to death on 06 Nov 1550. The next day, Björn and Ari were executed. Jón was offered his life if he would renounce Catholicism but he only said he wished to accompany his sons. After seven chops with the axe, he finally died.

Legends claim that just as the first axe blow was coming, a priest called Sveinn said to Jón, “Líf er eftir þetta, herra!” (“There is a life after this one, Sire!”) Jón turned to Sveinn and said, “Veit ég það, Sveinki!” (“That I know, little Sveinn!”) Ever since veit ég það, Sveinki has been a traditional saying and means the person has said something completely obvious.

The following photo is the place of execution near Skálholt.

At the age of their deaths, Jón was 66-years-old. His sons, Björn of 44 years and Ari of 40 years are both my 10th Great Grandfathers. Björn is on our Jónasson side and Ari is on the Ólafsson ancestral tree.

Another son, Sigurður, went to Skálholt to bring his father and brothers home for burial. They put bells on the coffins. People came up to the coffins with reverence of these men they believed to be saints. Tradition says that as their bodies were carried to Hólar, the bell called “Líkaböng” automatically started ringing on its own and it rang so loud that it split. They were buried at Hólar.

Jón had a daughter named Þórunn. It is believed that she inspired 30 – 60 men to seek revenge. Doing the King’s business, Christian Skriver and his group were traveling on the Reykjanes peninsulas. Spending the night at Kirkjubol, this group of northerners (with permission from the farmer) penetrated the roof and killed Christian and his men. They also killed all the Danes in the area that they could find. I heard a story once that Christian was killed by forcing molten metal down his throat but I cannot find any reliable sources to corroborate this story.

Their bodies were buried north of the Kirkjubol home fields. Legend states these dead Danes started haunting the area so their bodies were exhumed. Their heads were chopped off and put at their buttocks, to prevent their souls from any further hauntings. When the King found out about this, he was outraged. He sent Danish soldiers to the farm and the farmer was beheaded at the farm called Straumur. There is a nice 5 km walking trail from Gardskagi to Kirkjubol to Sandgerdi, all along the shore of the Reykjanesskagi. There you can see diverse bird life and seals.

Iceland submitted to Danish King Christian III at the Alþing 01 Jul 1551 and the Lutheran Reformation was official. But our ancestor, Jón Arason, was considered a national hero as a protector of Iceland as a nation. Jón Arason had many descendants that were also priests and bishops including five Lutheran bishops of Skálholt and three of Holar. Artifacts from this era are preserved in Reykjavík at the National Museum.

In 1950, a tower with a chapel and chamber was built which houses the remains of Bishop Jón.

The church was built from 1756-1763. The church stones are from Hólabyrda, the mountain above Hólar. An infant grave is inside the wall which is the baby of the German mason who built the church. The altarpiece was made in Germany about 1500 and brought to Hólar by Bishop Jón. It is beautiful with Bible based wood-carved figures with gold gilded panels.

For more information on the Reformation in Iceland: click here:

Special Thanks to Hálfdan Helgason for his genealogy assistance and partnership through the years.

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